Gepost door: Paul | januari 26, 2008


Does religion exist? Jonathan Z. Smith (1982) says it does not. Yes, people do rituals; believe in an afterlife, a god; get to gether with other people who do and believe the same; write sacred texts… But they do not have a religion. Religion is a scholarly, enlightenment concept, a taxonomy for such conglomerates of actions and ideas. And, according to Smith, often a not very scientific taxonomy.

But this taxonomy didn’t remain in Academia. Like a lot of scholarly models, it became part and parcel of the conceptual world in people’s minds, the prism through which we observe our surroundings. As a result, “religious” communities started to self-identify as Religions, starting to fit better and better into the scholarly taxonomy, thus post-facto proving it…

This makes my work as a student of pre-enlightenment times very difficult. What does a world without religion look like?

No, I’m sorry, not peaceful as one might imagine…



  1. Although this subject is hardly my field of expertise, I will not let it deter me from asking some questions I have on your (concurring) thesis.

    After having read your blog, there are some things I do not understand entirely?

    If I understand it correctly, you (with Smith) are saying, that because religion is a scholarly, enlightenment concept, it could therefore – as such – not exist before the Age of Enlightenment, which hinders you in examining the period which you are studying, since that period is much earlier then the age on Enlightenment.

    First of all, I am not persuaded by the definition of religion as giving by Smith. Doesn’t it set the bar too high for what qualifies as a religion.

    To quote you own words:

    Yes, people do rituals; believe in an afterlife, a god; get to gether with other people who do and believe the same; write sacred texts…

    I would simply say that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck……… it probably is a duck. I would even state that if the vast majority of a certain group of people consider the common denominator of their system of beliefs, as a religion, it therefore is automatically a religion.

    Can you elaborate on what did exist (according to you or Smith) before the age of Enlightement if it is not a Religion?

    Secondly you wrote:

    But they do not have a religion.

    Shouldn’t this sentence be: but they ARE not a religion? I am not trying to be funny. Can a group be a Religion without having a religion?

    So basically my question is, do you mean that the group itself isn’t necessarily a religion or just that the collective individuals of the group do not posses something which can be called a religion?

    The third point I have been pondering about in my limited brain space is the following. Again, I hope I understood it correctly.

    The scholarly taxonomy has been disseminated to the ordinary day world and into the view of ordinary people and thereby changing or adjusting their belief system to such an extent, that it fitted better into the scholarly taxonomy system. Sounds a bit like some law by – if I remember correctly – Heisenberg. One can not exactly know the position of an atom. When you study it, you influence the position and that is why you can never know with absolute certainty the precise position of the atom. It would require further study which means another influence etc etc.

    Your problem sounds somewhat similar to Heisenberg’s problem. Once people started to examine religion, their study (and their taxonomy) had an influence on their object of study, up to the point the object changed into something that better fitted into their taxonomy.

    Since I am just a simple lawyer – with some scholarly abilities and absolutely no scientific pretences – I can only hope that my questions are of some use to you.

    Kind greetings and I look forward to your next blog entry.

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